California high-speed rail ridership studies are flawed and are "unreliable for policy analysis," according to an independent review released Wednesday by the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
The report was commissioned by the California Senate Transportation and Housing Committee and has been eagerly anticipated by state legislators, local officials and critics of the controversial project, many of whom argued that the California High-Speed Rail Authority is basing its plans on faulty ridership models.
Its findings largely confirm the allegations voiced by critics such as Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD), a Palo Alto-based watchdog group that has persistently criticized the rail authority's projections.
Under the current plans, the rail system would initially connect from San Francisco to Los Angeles and would later be expanded to Sacramento and San Diego. The rail authority had chosen the Pacheco Pass and the Peninsula as its preferred route for the new line despite arguments from a coalition of environmentalists and several Peninsula cities that the Altamont Pass in the East Bay would be a better alternative.
The new report identifies a series of technical errors and states that Cambridge Systematics, the company that performed the study for the rail authority, changed key parameter values "because the resulting estimates did not accord with the modelers' a priori expectations."
The report stated that the methodology used by Cambridge for adjusting its model parameters "has been shown to be incorrect for the type of model they employed."
"The parameters are therefore invalid and the forecasts based on them, in particular of high-speed-rail mode shares, are unreliable," the report states. A "mode" means the mode of travel one chooses: trains, planes or automobiles.
The Cambridge analysis also used a model that did not allow travelers to choose between high-speed rail stations, according to the report. This model, coupled with other dubious assumptions, "unrealistically favors alignments that avoid dividing services onto branch routes, such as Pacheco," the report states.
"Correcting this deficiency would almost certainly reduce, although probably not eliminate, the ridership difference between the Pacheco and Altamont alignments found in the CS study," the report states.
The ITS report also finds a key flaw in Cambridge's process for surveying California's riders. The mode choices of the individuals surveyed, the report said, "were not representative of California interregional travelers" because they were largely air travelers. But 90 percent of business travelers going more than 100 miles use cars, the report said. The resulting model "gives a distorted view of the tastes of the average California traveler."
The Berkeley study concluded that the combination of problems implies that the demand forecasts for high-speed rail have "very large error bounds."
"These bounds, which were not quantified by CS, may be large enough to include the possibility that the California HSR may achieve healthy profits and the possibility that it may incur significant revenue shortfalls," the report states. "We believe that further work to both assess and reduce these bounds should be a high priority."
The new report was lauded by David Schonbrunn, president of the Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund and one of the leading advocates of the Altamout Pass alternative. Schonbrunn's group was part of the coalition that filed a lawsuit challenging the rail authority's selection of Pacheco Pass.
The rail authority's choice of Pacheco was ultimately reaffirmed by the Sacramento County Superior Court, but Schonbrunn filed a new petition in May asking the courts to revisit the route selection in light of the new revelations about the ridership projections.
"We hope this report, in conjunction with the recent reports from the State Auditor and Legislative Analyst, will prod the Legislature to consider replacing the High-Speed Rail Authority as manager of this enormous project," Schonbrunn said in a statement, referring to two other recent reports that were critical of the project.
The rail authority today released a letter defending the ridership projections. It stated that it believes the ridership model "has been, and continues to be a sound tool for use in high-speed rail planning and environmental analysis."
Authority CEO Roelof van Ark expressed special concern about the study's conclusion about the "large error bounds" in the authority's forecasts and its assertion that these bounds are "large enough to include the possibility that the California HSR may include significant revenue shortfalls."
"This is an extraordinary statement for which we find no foundation in the Draft Report," van Ark wrote.
A copy of the full report is here.